The French epigramist La Rochefoucauld observed, "Old men are fond of giving good advice to console themselves for no longer being able to set bad examples."
So in that spirit, let me pass on a survival tip to incoming college freshmen from my classmate, the late film critic Gene Siskel, who heard it from novelist John Hersey.
"Don't be unhappy when you're unhappy," he said. "Happiness is fleeting. Strive for serenity instead."
And that's the deep, dark secret about college. Everybody's been telling you how lucky you are, how it's going to be the most fun you've ever had. So how come you're bummed out? Relax, there's nothing wrong with you. Believe it or not, everyone else is scared, too. It's a big step you're taking, the first time away from home for most of you. Eventually, college is going to be everything wonderful they told you it would be. But it's going to take a little time to make the emotional transition.
My freshman year started off with one of my new roommates looking me up and down with disgust and saying, "They didn't tell me they were going to room me with a Jewboy."
The next two weeks were a nightmare, with him pulling stunts like rolling a penny under a bed and saying, "Go get it, Jewboy," while the other roommate laughed. Eventually, the administration moved me to a different dorm, where I made friends and put all the unpleasantness behind me.
Or so I thought. In my junior year, I was dating a girl from Sarah Lawrence. On one of our dates, she looked up at me and said, "What religion are you?"
"You're Jewish, aren't you?" she said.
"Uh, ah, um, er, uh ... well, yes," I finally admitted.
"I'm sorry, but I can't date you anymore," she said.
"Is it because I'm Jewish?" I asked.
"No," she said. "It's because both my parents survived the concentration camps, and I refuse to date somebody who is ashamed to be a Jew."
With that, she walked across the street and disappeared into the subway. I never saw her again. But she did me a big favor by making me face up to my cowardice.
Now, flash forward to my 35th college reunion. The penny-roller wasn't there, but the other guy, the one who laughed, was. We kept eyeing each other at a distance throughout the reunion until the end of the class dinner, when he came up to me, stuck out his hand and apologized. I don't know who was happier about it -- him or me. Since then, he's the first person I look for at every reunion, and I'm the first one he looks for, too.
It might take a while, but it all works out in the end.
So if you're feeling lonely, just remember: So is everyone else. If you're feeling intimidated, they are too. Try consoling someone else, for a change. They might need it more than you do. And you just might make a friend.